At Byron’s one-year medical checkup this past summer at a clinic in Warren, a Detroit suburb, the pediatrician gave the infant a foot prick to test his blood for lead. The levels came back high—quite high.
“What does ‘high’ mean?” Byron’s mom, Beverly, remembers asking.
The pediatrician answered, “We like to see it under three. Five is cause for concern. And your child has 28.” That’s 28 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. But, he added, it might be a false positive; Byron would need a more accurate venous test.
Beverly called her husband, Robert, from the clinic’s parking lot and told him about the test. (Byron, Beverly, and Robert are the family’s middle names; they asked us not to use their full names because of the stigma associated with lead poisoning.) “I could tell he was shaken for sure,” she says. And then she drove her son to Detroit’s St. John Hospital for the venous lead test.
While she waited for the results to come back, Beverly started researching lead poisoning.
“Looking online is a super-, super-scary experience because you come across, like, the worst scenarios,” she says.
While lead is toxic to humans of any age, children and infants are particularly vulnerable. When a baby’s body absorbs lead, the body can then use that lead—rather than beneficial metals such as calcium or iron—to build its basic brain architecture. The effects of elevated blood-lead levels in infants can include learning disabilities, speech delays, hearing loss, lowered IQ, and increased hyperactivity and aggression. Even very small amounts of lead can cause neurological damage; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines five micrograms or more per deciliter as elevated blood lead (their guidelines were updated in 2012; prior to that, the “level of concern” was 10 micrograms)—but no level has been proven safe.
Once a baby is lead-poisoned, the family can do a lot to try to get the lead out of the child’s blood and to prevent further exposure, but, as Beverly now knows, “any damage that’s been done is irreversible.”
“I definitely felt sick to my stomach that my baby could have poison in his body,” she says.
When the hospital called with the venous test results, the diagnosis was confirmed: Byron’s blood-lead level was 21 micrograms per deciliter, more than quadruple the level considered to be an “elevated blood-lead level.”